Wood Be? Wouldn’t Be!

by Carl Strang

For a couple years now, I have been pursuing early-season crickets that I thought must be northern wood crickets (Gryllus vernalis). These close relatives of our familiar spring field crickets (Gryllus pennsylvanicus) had been reported to occur in two of the counties in the Chicago region, both in northern Indiana. Spring field crickets are abundant in well-drained open grassy areas in my home county of DuPage, in Illinois. When I started hearing chirping Gryllus songs in Indiana woodlands and savannas, coming from accumulations of oak leaves often under trees, I figured these must be wood crickets.

For example, my attention was drawn to clumps of oak leaves surrounded by sand, along the Marquette Trail in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Nothing grassy about this!

A few days ago, I headed to the Marquette Trail to make another attempt to see one of these crickets. I wanted to confirm my suspicion, but also to get photos of a living northern wood cricket.

All I had were photos of museum specimens like this. Note the taper from the back of the thorax through the head. Spring field crickets are broader in front.

As I walked along a section of trail beside a road, I heard one of the crickets singing in a narrow band of accumulated oak leaves at the base of a hill.

An earlier controlled burn had removed nearly all the available cover. Puccoons bloomed magnificently above the line of leaves.

I made a sound recording of the singing cricket, and used the shotgun microphone to get his exact location. Then I lifted the layers of leaves to see if I could spot him.

You may be able to see the tunnels in the sand. At first I figured he made a quick retreat into them when I lifted the leaves.

If you look in the lower right-hand corner of the photo, however, you may see a small oval of reflected light. After taking the picture I discovered it was the cricket! I got him into a plastic cup.

I got my photos, and did my best to make him a northern wood cricket, but in fact he was a spring field cricket. Not only were his proportions wrong, but he held still and let me hold calipers just above him for a measurement. Spring field crickets usually are 16mm long, northern wood crickets 14mm, and this one was 16.8mm.

After reviewing my recordings, I think all the woodland Gryllus crickets I have heard in the region in fact are spring field crickets. There were small technical differences in song parameters between crickets in tree leaves and those in grassy areas, but I have to conclude that they don’t represent a species difference. The lesson ultimately is one of habitat. Spring field crickets on clay soils occur only in well-drained grasses. In sandy areas they broaden their habitat into woodland edges, and don’t associate strictly with grasses.

Further review of reference recordings points me toward northern wood crickets having more rapid chirping speed, and a lower pitch, resulting in a slightly less musical impression. So it’s back to square one for northern wood crickets in the region, and my insistence on visual confirmation of suspected but ambiguous species observations is vindicated.

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